Thursday, November 13, 2014

The "Other" Jewish Land

The re-establishment of the State of Israel in the modern world is the most significant event to have occurred to Judaism in, well… 2000 years! However, most people are completely unaware that 20 years before the rebirth of Israel there was another Jewish home established by the name of Birobidzhan. The region of Birobidzhan is in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast which was founded by Stalin under his nationalist philosophy in 1928. Stalin designated a large land-mass on the eastern border of Russia neighboring China to be the home for Yiddishkeit and subsequently encouraged many thousands of Jews to relocate therein. The region became a place for Jewish autonomy, Yiddish is the official language, and Jewish culture was the dominant expression (i.e. Jewish theater, Yiddish schools, streets are named after Yidden, and Jewish monuments fill the public spaces).

The initial stages of Birobidzhan's establishment and growth were quite successful. Jews relocated from all over the Soviet Union and over a thousand Jews from outside the Union also immigrated to the region in the 1930's.  In 1934 the Jewish population was 15,000 and expectations were high that the population would swell to one million. 30,000 Jews relocated to the region to escape from the Holocaust. However, Stalin became more totalitarian and oppressive and the Jewish leadership of Birobidzhan was decimated with accusations of corruption and ideological heresy. Many of the wealthier Jewish citizens fled leaving the poorest of the community to face horrendous persecution. In 1948 the Jewish state of Israel was founded and the Soviet Union was among the first countries to recognize the new Jewish state, Stalin subsequently started a new campaign of anti-semitism in order to push Jews to Israel and purge the Soviet Union of its Jewish presence. As a result most Jewish culture was wiped out, Hebrew was outlawed, synagogues, theaters, schools were closed. The practice of Judaism was discouraged and Birobidzhan stagnated and was all but forgotten.
By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 there remained only a Jewish population of 2% out of the total non-Jewish population of 190,000 who were comprised of Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, and Koreans. The loss of Jewish infrastructure and significant population did not however stop Jewish life from once again becoming revitalized in Birobidzhan. In modern Birobidzhan the public schools now teach the Yiddish language again, the Birobidzhaner Shtern (Yiddish newspaper) is still published, there is Yiddish radio and television programming. A new Jewish community center and synagogue have been built and a new Sholem Aleichem monument has been built. Birobidzhan now hosts an annual International Festival of Jewish Culture which is a carnival of dance, music, and performing arts.
Today, Birobidzhan is home to some 70,000 residents and according to a recent article published by the Jerusalem Post there is an estimated Jewish population of 7000. Birobidzhan has a recognizably Judaic culture and has been described as a Jewish Disneyland as it is architecturally and decoratively overtly Jewish. The town is tidy and well-kept with trees lined streets. The town is economically prosperous like other far regions in the Russian Far East. Its economy is based primarily on mining, lumber, agriculture and light manufacturing. The regions gross regional product increased 50% since 2000. Its rich resources in agriculture and minerals and building materials are highly desired, poultry and cattle is raised in the grasslands, and an abundance of nectar producing plants make the area ideal for beekeeping. Exports to China make investment in Birobidzhan an attractive move.

Birobidzhan would be an interesting historical anomaly and it could be left for the history books if not for its revival of Judaism in modern times. Birobidzhan is increasingly becoming a desirous location to live for Israeli's who are leaving their homeland for the father land. Many of the Israeli's are Russian immigrants who are fed up with the politics and Rabbinate in Israel which typically confines them to a second-class status. Many Israeli's also see the region as an attractive investment opportunity and the quality of life as presenting more opportunity than in Israel which is besieged by inflation and lack of economic opportunity. Birobidzhan has seen 120 Jewish families move there last year and some residents are referring to Birobidzhan as a world center for Yiddish.
In June 2010 the CS Monitor ran a story of current Jewish life in Birobidzhan which is partially duplicated below…
"Today, Yiddish is the language of instruction in only one of Birobidzhan's 14 public schools, though Jewish culture and literature are studied everywhere. Last September, two schools representing a quarter of the city's students introduced compulsory Yiddish classes for children aged 6 to 10.
Natalia Mohno, who isn't Jewish, runs the Menora Kindergarten. The school has both gentile and Jewish students, a symbol of tolerance in a country with a long history of anti-Semitism.
Pictures showing Jewish holidays line the dark corridor walls of the two-story brick building. "Non-Jewish parents bring their children here because they consider all this part of them. We even have Chinese kids. Everyone is interested in Yiddish and Judaism," says Ms. Mohno, as groups of students noisily file down the corridor, a few stopping to say "shalom."
The lively Elena Sarashevskaya edits the Yiddish section of the main local newspaper, the Birobidzhan Shtern, though she isn't Jewish. "Many authors who write about the region only do so in Yiddish, so it's normal that I wanted to learn it. Initially it was very hard, letters are unusual, you read from right to left, it didn't make sense but I learned slowly and realized that Yiddish was not only a language, it was about Jewish history and literature, our culture," says Ms. Sarashevskaya.
Nowhere are the ties between Jews and non-Jews here clearer than in Birobidzhan's tiny second synagogue, located on the outskirts of the city. It is Sabbath and it could be a 19th- century Jewish village were it not for the phone in the corner. The building is no more than 40 paces long, with low ceilings and a tin roof. A dozen mostly middle-aged parishioners sit on benches, a simple curtain separating men from women.
The rabbi, Dov Kofman, an affable man who walks with a cane, says when the ceremony is over: "I love Israel, my son is now there serving in the army, but this is my fatherland." Suddenly a non-Jewish neighbor stops by to say hello, sitting down on one of the benches. An engineer by training, Yevgeni Stolbov oversaw the construction of most of Birobidzhan, and is now retired.
"I love coming here, I would do anything to help this synagogue, it's part of my life and want to see it here forever," he says as his friend, the rabbi, looks on with a smile."
It seems that Birobidzhan is here to stay and is quickly becoming the center for Yiddish culture. What will we see from this Jewish community in the future? In 2013 Russian authorities announced its initiative to provide an incentive for Jewish expats looking to move to Birobidzhan by offering $8000.00 in relocation costs. It remains to be seen if Jews in the interior of Russian cities will take up the offer. On the downside Birobidzhan has a 10% unemployment rate and is a thoroughway for drug smuggling between China and Russia. As a result the area has a high crime rate.
One thing is for certain, outside of Israel, Birobidzhan is the only region in the world that is experiencing positive growth of the Jewish population. Judaism in the West is on the decline and we may be witnessing the growth of Judaism in the Far East.